Saturday, April 17, 2010

104-Year-Old Bill Del Monte Honoured with First-Ever 1906 San Francisco Earthquake and Fire Survivor Award

Bill Del Monte, at 104-years-old, was honoured this afternoon with the first-ever 1906 San Francisco Earthquake and Fire Survivor Award.

An alert centenarian, Bill was guest of honour and sole attending survivor at the annual Survivors' Dinner, the start of commemoration events this weekend of the terrible disaster that befell the city.

Much to his surprise, he was presented with his award, a commemorative fireman's helmet with a specially inscribed badge, by the Battalion Chief of Battalion 3, Gerry Scullion.

'To Bill,' said Chief Scullion, 'who has persevered this long and is someone to look up to, we honour you tonight.'

Announcing the award, event organizer Lee Houskeeper, said Bill was 'probably the most famous guy in San Francisco today.'

Slightly overwhelmed with the attention, Bill, who donned the helmet, said humbly, 'It's a little too much for me!'

About 20 people had gathered for the occasion in the historic John's Grill near Market Street. Guests  included Police Captain Al Casciato, and representatives of the Emergency Management and NERT (Neighbourhood Emergency Response Team).

Bill was chauffered by his niece, Janette Barroca and met by Lee and Chief Scullion. Emerging from the car in front of a vintage fire truck, he walked into the restaurant with just a little steadying help.

On his head then was his trademark tan tam o'shanter with red and blue stripes. 'Even coming here today I got three compliments. I think I have had about 3,000 since I was given this hat about 30 years ago,' he said, once he was seated inside.

Bill has catapulted to survivor fame since he made his first appearance at last year's anniversary.

What does he think of the commemoration?

'It's something unusual. Naturally, it will soon be coming to an end,' he said, referring to occasions when survivors are present.

This may be only Bill's second appearance at the San Francisco ceremony at Lotta's Fountain which is held at the time that the 7.8 earthquake struck at 5.12 am on April 18, but he has joined in with other aspects of earlier commemorations. He has been on a boat tour around the Bay, that used to be held for survivors, and been to luncheons at John's Grill about four or five times.

Of the formal ceremonial events that take place at 5.12 am, he said, 'I was living in Marin. I figured it was too much, I never bothered to come.' He added, 'This will be my last.'


'Yes!' he said.

Bill was only three-months old when he was bundled by his grandmother onto the back of his father's buckboard, and the family were driven down to the Ferry Building through blazing streets.

Today, his hearing is slightly diminished but even in a noisy restaurant you could converse with him, and his mind is clear.

So clear that he still engages in a little day-trading. The stock market was Bill's second disaster in life. At the age of 25 years he lost $1 million - about $24 million in today's values - in the Wall Street crash of 1929.

How did his parents feel about that? I asked, his father, Angelo, being the founder of America's oldest Italian restaurant, the Fior d'Italia. 'They were worth more than I was, the whole family, we all made big money on the stock market at the time,' he replied calmly.

As Bill was the youngest of five children (though sadly his sister, Angiolina, died as a toddler), the figures sound astounding. So what did the family do?

'We kept trying bit by bit to get it back,' he said.

With bated breath I asked if he had faced another financial disaster with the recent stock market crash?

'Hardly at all. I was lucky, a couple of years ago I got out,' he said.

Bill and his late wife, Vera, did not have any children, and Vera died 18 years ago. 'I was lucky. I had a wonderful wife,' he said.

Tomorrow, Bill will be up at dawn and ready for his ride in a vintage car to the commemoration on Market Street.

Asked afterwards what he thought of Bill, Chief Scullion said he was 'pretty amazing! We could all do with what he's got to survive that long.'

During the award ceremony, Lee Houskeeper also paid tribute to Taren Sapienza who for many years had organized the events and who sadly died last year. She was represented by two of her sisters, Diane and Donna.

'She really focussed on the survivors,' said Diane, organizing their hospitality and making sure they had blankets and baskets of goodies.

Their father, Leo, was the last president of the South of Market Boys, who were the originators of the annual commemoration at Lotta's Fountain.

According to Lee, there will be the 'biggest and best and loudest parade' at 5 am. The cavalcade will proceed from the Westin St Francis and there will be a band from the SF German Music Association, who will be joined by members of other bands.

pics by Chris 
flickr photostream:

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